03/11/2013 01:42 pm ET Updated May 11, 2013

Visions of Europe: Unity & Division

What are the territorial and cultural boundaries of Europe? How do Europe's many competing theological, cultural, and political visions coexist today? What future will they bring? Does Europe still matter to non-Europeans?

These were some of the pressing questions raised at the University of California, Irvine conference, "Visions of Europe: Unity & Division," which took place on March 1-2, 2013 in Irvine, Calif. A unique interdisciplinary event that included faculty from Music, History, Political Science, Literatures and Languages, as well as the consuls from France, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Hungary, Belgium and the Czech Republic, this conference examined Europe, its history and present, through the eyes of its citizens, neighbors, and citizens of the former colonies.

Organized by Anke Biendarra, Carrie Noland, and David Pan of UC Irvine's European Languages and Studies Department, the conference offered 28 separate presentations over two days and a great diversity of approaches and opinions. Amid such variety, a central question remained: Is there a unifying European identity that transcends mere territorial and economic agreements?

Such an identity, itself a highly contested, centuries-old ideal, remains all the more difficult to imagine given the immediate material crises: the continuing eurozone crisis, a record joblessness at an average of 11.9 percent in January 2013, and a myriad of stubborn political, social and cultural challenges.

Addressing Europe's multiple struggles, the seven consuls largely affirmed the EU's ability to survive its obstacles. Consul General of France Axel Cruau, for example, presented the positive estimation of Europe as a global political institution. Meanwhile, Bruno Ryff, Consul General of Switzerland, ventured to describe his historically neutral country as a "de facto" EU member, which nevertheless enjoyed its relative freedom from the continuing crisis, although he noted an odd statistic that Switzerland has the lowest university enrollment rate of university-rich countries, a factor he attributes to low unemployment.

One consul Michal Sedlacek, Consul General of the Czech Republic, a self-described "Euro-realist" offered a more critical look at the European Union. He asked, "When does the unifying legislation go too far?", and offered several concrete examples of how cultural differences persist in Europe. Firstly, Sedlacek described the unpopularity of the EU's authoritarian centralized financial model, which has killed off the local Czech sugar industry. Secondly, the Czech Republic often disagrees with the dominant French and German political agenda, but fails to compete with this majority opinion. Lastly, Czech families remain more traditional than other working European families and customarily keep their young children at home rather than sending them to the preschools mandated by the European Union bureaucracy. Czechs retain a mere 2 percent attendance rate and suffer widespread closures. "The nation-state is very much alive," declared Sedlacek.

To be sure, national distinctions seem to persist even in the most integrated contexts. Within Irvine's recently formed European Languages and Studies Department, national language and literatures retain their particular features and interests, and thus mirror the EU's united but differentiated state. Entering such complex territory, Robert Moeller of History at Irvine quipped:

"I feel like I should introduce myself as 'my name is Bob and I'm a historian.' "

In fact, Moeller's talk on Stanley Kramer's film Judgment at Nuremberg coincided many of the other talks by Anke Biendarra, Zina Giannopoulou, James Steintrager, Sarah Farmer, Mark Levine, Luis Avilés, David Brodbeck, Kevin Olson, Santiago Morales-River, Herschel Farbman, Beryl Schlossman, Gail Hart, Carrie Noland and Kai Evers, which engaged questions of statehood, empire, ethnic and religious difference, American intervention, the Cold War, transnational media, commerce and revolution in the context of Europe's colonial legacy and global wars.

Addressing Europe's volatile history, several presentations offered a positive assessment of Europe as both divided and unified. Eve Morisi delivered a talk on Albert Camus' activism against capital punishment and affirmed that the shared values have enabled Europe to become the most consistently abolitionist territory in the world. Jane O. Newman reflected on legacy of accord as well as national and religious autonomy after the Treaty of Westphalia (1648).

European unity, originally conceived as Christian, now secular, remains fragile and at odds with Europe's religious minorities. Keynote speaker Russell Berman of Stanford University considered the decline of both Christian and secular Europe and drew on Edmund Husserl's "Vienna Lecture," which prizes a shared value of reason. John Smith of Irvine's European Languages and Studies Department offered a critical view of Benedict XVI's controversial "Regensburg lecture," and separated the recently retired pope's politics from a strand of Christian thought -- that of the evangelist John's Logos, which can also be variously understood as logic, language and persuasion. A varied tradition, Christian Logos also encountered some very stiff competition from other cultural forms and institutions.

One of the many remarkable presentations included Irvine's new dean Georges Van Den Abbeele and Pablo Ortiz, a composer of avant-garde operas from UC Davis, embodied a spirit of collaboration that seemed to animate both the concept of humanities and of Europe as well. Focused on collaborative pedagogy, the dean's example of teaching with a colleague outside his field described the virtues of the open format, which require nominal funds, and is flexible for inviting lecturers.

Other forms of collaborative work also offered positive examples: Glenn Levine, also of Irvine's European Languages & Studies, discussed language pedagogy, methodology, social media and the difficulties of becoming plurilingual in Europe. Conference-organizer David Pan argued that, while general education needs literature in translation, language learning remains paramount. A liberal arts curriculum needs both.